Revisioning the Henry Lawson story

'Are you alright?' the yoga instructor asked. 'Yes. Just got divorced.' i whispered back. 'Oh,' he said. his serenity jolted. Well, um, take it easy.'
Book Info
A Wife's Heart The untold story of Bertha and Henry Lawson
Kerrie Davies

The title of this work puts not just the ‘wife’ Bertha in the spotlight, but also the man she is wife to, Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s literary forefathers. Sydney journalist and academic Kerrie Davies has trawled through microfiche and legal records, letters, hospital and prison records and drafts of poems to unearth what life was like for Bertha and her children.
Even when Bertha, aged 19, met Henry, 28, he already had a reputation for a vile temper and heavy drinking. We should remember too that Henry had become deaf aged about fourteen, following an ear infection at the age of nine. No doubt he had more than his share of frustrations to deal with.
Her mother opposed the liaison but they eloped. His mother, writer Louisa Lawson might have been predicting their sorry future when she’d written in her feminist paper, ‘The Dawn’,

'The woman who cannot give a better reason for marrying than that she is in love is likely to come to grief.'( Lawson 1989)

But Davies has done so much more with this work than simply reveal the unhappy truth of this marriage and two lives. The story opens with Davies swimming laps in the Andrew (Boy) Charlton pool more or less in the shadow of Lawson’s statue and so Davies opens the parallel narrative of her own disintegrated marriage to a bohemian musician.

'While Ruby slept, he said, ‘I’m going to do this cruise. I think we should have a break. I don’t want to be a sad old fuck in a shop. I want to have my career and I can’t have it here.’ (Davies, 2017, 80)

The episodes of Bertha’s move to London, her incarceration in an asylum there, her efforts to feed, clothe, shelter and educate her children and later her struggle for recognition for her memoir My Henry Lawson, are interspersed with fragments of memoir of Davies’ similar struggles. Davies has done some fine social history with her examination of the early divorce laws and blunt rendering of how the legal systems works, or rather didn’t, in relation to settling these issues. More than history, though, this is a provocative and interesting read, a tale finely told.

Artistic genius, dedicated bohemianism, wanderlust, poverty, insanity and disability are not the best ingredients for a happy life, nor a happy wife.

Pamela Greet
April 2017